My dad passed away 2 weeks after my 21st birthday, nine months after we found out he had lung cancer. We immediately wanted to know what we needed to do to get him cancer-free and healthy again. Countless doctors appointments, scans, surgeries & hours of stress led us to the conclusion that he had 6 -9 months to live. I remember hearing the words but they made absolutely no sense. How could this man, who had been there for those 21 years just leave me? Honestly, that's what it felt like. The night he died we all took turns telling him we would be ok, he could let go. Naively, I believed those words when I told him. I had no idea that grief would feel like hitting a brick wall.
Grief has a funny way of showing up. It's not just the big things like Christmas and Father's day. It's the million little things that might go unnoticed by everyone else. Hearing "House of the Rising Sun", smelling Brut, seeing a man fishing. These things seem harmless but when grief rears it's head they can be all consuming and debilitating. I remember going to work every day and then spending an hour at my best friends house. I would go there to cry, every day. This was my way of "dealing with it". Little did I know at the time, that there was process to grief. Slowly, I worked through my pain. I think the biggest key in this for me was knowing that I did everything I could while my dad was alive to help him prepare for his death.
It took me a long time (I'm talking years here) to be able to talk about my dad without breaking down. I mean, I wanted to talk about him, it was just so hard to put into words what I was feeling. My dad was not perfect, none of us are, but I have to say he was such a great guy. He was thoughtful and generous, loved to read and was obsessed with NASCAR. He was a crazy talented wood carver and loved to fish. He would walk to the beach almost daily after his cancer diagnosis to spend time with Mother Nature. On his way home he would stop for coffee with two of his very close friends, he loved his routine.
Things I've learned about grief:
Everyone goes through it in their own way
It has no expiration date
New grief can trigger the old grief
The feelings are hard
You need to accept support
You have to allow yourself to be vulnerable
It sucks, but it will get better
Living your life doesn't mean the grief is gone
On our drives into Boston for treatments, my dad and I had some great conversations. He told me he was sorry that he wouldn't be here to see me get married or have children. He told me to never settle, because I deserved better than that. He asked me to look after my mother. I talk about "Grampy" to my two boys regularly. I show them pictures and we have his wood carvings on display in our home. Even though he is not physically here, he is around us all of the time. Losing him was devastating but I have learned to live with that loss and grow from it. This Friday (February 15th) will mark 21 years without my dad. It has been a heartbreaking, beautiful journey. I think about him every single day and I'm grateful for every memory that I carry with me.
If you are dealing with grief, please know you are not alone. Reach out to loved ones for help if you are struggling, it can make all the difference.